Every four years, the Olympics captures the attention of the world. We’ve witnessed Michael Phelps bring his total gold medal count to a staggering twenty-three. We’ve seen Simone Manuel and Jenny Simpson make history in their respective events. We’ve watched Simone Biles dominate the gymnasium. We’ve stared at the screen in disbelief as Katie Ledecky blew away her opponents in the pool.
Along the way, we’ve also witnessed the heartache of competitors who came just short of medaling, the pain of athletes who couldn’t finish because of injury, and the agony of runners disqualified because of a false start.
The common thread in all the athletes at the Rio Games is that these Olympics are a culminating moment for years, even decades, of preparation. Every athlete has a story of how they got to the Olympics, and those stories are often so powerful that they overshadow the competition itself. We don’t watch as much for the actual events themselves as we do for the stories of the athletes in them. We watch because we want to know why they are there, what adversity they have had to overcome in their journey to this moment.
Every Olympic athlete has a “why,” a reason why they’ve dedicated their lives to a particular event, a motivation for the countless hours of practice and hard work they put in with no one watching. For many of the competitors, the “why” is the glory and fame that the medals represent. For others, it’s to break a barrier or accomplish something no one in history has ever done. Some are carrying the expectations of an entire country or hoping to honor their loved ones who aren’t there to see them.
The Olympics provides an opportunity for us to be inspired by all these various “whys.” They should also cause us to reflect on our own personal “why.” As Os Guinness asks in his short work Rising to the Call, “Do you have a reason for being, a focused sense of purpose for your life? Or is your life the product of shifting resolutions and the myriad pulls of forces outside yourself?”
Leaders need to have an especially acute answer to the “why” question. Both secular and Christian leadership authors point to this truth. Ronald Heifetz defines a sense of purpose as “the capacity to find the values that make risk-taking meaningful.” Stephen Covey argues that leaders should “begin with the end in mind.” Henry and Richard Blackaby suggest that knowing your purpose is what gives you the ability to persevere through difficult situations.
Psalm 1 paints a portrait of the righteous man being “planted by streams of water.” The planting, or rootedness of a leader, is the answer to the “why” question. The world is full of leaders whose answer to the “why” question goes no further than their own prosperity or self-advancement. Those roots don’t go very deep, and when troubles come, these types of leaders are the first to abandon the real task of leadership—serving others.
Matthew records Jesus saying that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (20:28). Jesus’ purpose was fixed, rooted, steady. I love the detail that Luke the physician provides after he recounts the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. He says that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). He set his face to his purpose of going to the cross for humanity, of carrying the weight of sin and death and ultimately overcoming them. Fourteen chapters before Jesus is nailed to the cross, Luke tells us that he set his face, focusing himself on what he was about to do.
Calling is such an important part of our lives, and it is the most defining component for leaders. Jesus was in constant fellowship with the Father, and only when we are in relationship with God will we correspondingly find our true purpose. Os Guinness’s words summarize how important it is that we all reflect on our own “why” in life and leadership:
“Calling provides the Archimedean point by which faith moves the world. That is why calling is the most comprehensive reorientation and the most profound motivation in human experience—the ultimate Why for living in all history.”